7 Ways Racism Affects the Lives of Black Children

Human Rights

Freddie Gray was just 25 when he lost his life after a brutal encounter with Baltimore police. Twenty-five is way too young for anyone to die, but the odds were stacked against Gray from a much younger age. 

Black children as young as 11—and sometimes even younger—are targeted by law enforcement, through school referrals that have them standing in criminal courts at rates that far outpace white children.

Raising a black child in 2015 means preparing him or her to bear the brunt of racism in all of its forms, starting with hyper-disciplining in schools to hyper-policing by the criminal justice system. If they survive all that, they have fewer economic and employment opportunities once they reach adulthood.

Sure, having money helps considerably. But as a recent study shows, black kids born into middle-class families are much less likely to stay at the same economic level as their parents than their white counterparts.  

All of these issues force black parents to raise their children to consider the consequences of being black on a daily basis, while white kids never need to consider the consequences of just being born the race they are. AlterNet put together a list of issues that black children face; white kids, not so much.

1. Black children are much more likely than white children to be suspended and expelled from school.

Children start enrolling in preschool between the ages of 2 and 5, and even at those tender ages, black kids begin being suspended disproportionately. Though black children make up just 18 percent of preschoolers nationwide, they account for nearly half of out-of-school suspensions, according to a 2014 U.S. Department of Education report.

Black students overall make up just 16 percent of public school enrollment but 42 percent of suspensions and expulsions. And while much attention has focused on the suspensions of black boys, black girls are also vulnerable to hyper-disciplining. A 2015 study reports that black girls made up 90 percent of girls expelled during the 2011-2012 school year, in New York City, while no white girls were suspended at all. In Boston, the numbers were just as bad. Sixty-three percent of the girls expelled that year were black; no white girls were suspended in Beantown that year.

2. Black boys are considered “older looking” and “less innocent” than white children.

A 10-year-old black boy doesn’t have the right to a childhood, as a white boy that age does, in the eyes of many people, according to a study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In fact, a 10-year-old black boy is often not even considered to be a child.  

In one experiment, 264 white, college-age female students were shown photos of black boys ranging in ages 10-17 alongside descriptions of crimes. The white female students overestimated ages of the boys by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than white or Latino boys. They also viewed black boys, starting at age 10, as less innocent.

The study also conducted experiments on 176 police officers (mostly white males and 37 years of age) from large cities to determine how biased they are against black boys based on “prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes.” After reviewing the officers’ files, researchers determined that cops who used force against black children dehumanized them. Force includes killings, wrist locks, takedowns, tear gas, electric shocks and striking with a blunt object.

The study provides ample qualitative and quantitative data that uncovers why so many black children are forced into the criminal justice system from a very young age.

3. Black kids get shot for playing with toy guns.

Given the previous point, it makes sense, unfortunately, why a cop who called in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice perceived him to be a threatening man. “Shots fired, male down, black male, maybe 20,” said the officer who reported the shooting.

Rice was shot and killed just seconds after cops arrived on the scene. If you don’t think there is a racial component to this, consider that there have been at least 10 recent cases in which police officers around the U.S. were confronted by armed adult white males who shot at them in some cases yet were taken into custody alive. Seems pretty safe to say that white kids playing with toy guns just about never get shot by police.

The same consideration is rarely given to black men, even if they are not armed. A 2005 study found that cops, mostly white, are more likely to shoot an unarmed black man than an armed white man.

4. Black children are hyper-policed at far higher rates than white children.

In a report released in last week, the Center for Public Integrity found that 27 percent of all school-age children referred to law enforcement because of disciplinary issues are black, despite making up just 16 percent of total enrollment. Virginia leads all states in overall referrals to law enforcement; 16 per 1,000 students. Broken down by race, black kids make up more than 25 referrals per 1,000 students in the state compared to 13.1 referrals per 1,000 students. Even states that have small black populations, like Wyoming, South Dakota and New Hampshire, send more of their black students to law enforcement.

Kayleb Moon-Robinson of Lynchburg, Va., was 11 years old last year when he was charged with disorderly conduct for “kicking over a trash can and then with felony assault on a police officer because he struggled to break free when the cop grabbed him,” according to CPI.

Such hyper-policing contributes to the “school-to-prison pipeline” that has led to disproportionately high numbers of school-age black kids being tried, sentenced and convicted as adults, according to a report by Al Jazeera.

5. Black kids who are born into middle-class families can still end up poor.

Just because a black family is middle class doesn’t mean the children will grow up to enjoy the same economic status. According to a 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, 60 percent of black children whose parents were middle class ended up in a lower income bracket during adulthood. In comparison, just 36 percent of white kids experienced such a downturn.

It is unclear why black kids experience such challenging economic declines during their adult lives, but it may be due to disproportionately high unemployment rates they encounter when they reach working age. Since the 1960s, the unemployment rate among black people has been nearly double that of whites. Racial disparities between black and white people today are greater than they were during the 1960s. Another issue may be criminal records. A recent study conducted by researchers at Arizona State University found that black men with criminal records are less likely than white men with criminal records to get callbacks after submitting job applications. And because of hyper-policing and mass incarceration, many more black men have criminal records.

6. Black parents have to teach their children how to deal with police officers.

There is no Pew study that tracks the number of black parents who talk to their children about best practices in dealing with cops, but it is a well-discussed issue. Few black parents go without having a conversation with their children about how to deal with police officers. 

Gawker publishedheartbreaking list of conversations black parents have with their kids about dealing with police. Here is what 27-year-old Fatima, of Boston, told her son during a Ferguson rally last year:

When he went to the rally in Boston with me, he was scared to even look at the police. That I feel a tiny bit of guilty for, but I think he should be scared of the police. I know I am. I'm scared for him! It's a continuous conversation for us, and I let him know that right now the police won't come after him, and that's only because he's 7. It's only a matter of time where he can't protect himself from the police solely because of how he looks. And it's only a matter of time before I can't protect him either.

To bring that home, take a look at poet Javon Johnson’s performance at the National Poetry Slam in 2013. He shares a moment when he was driving in his car with his 4-year-old nephew and they see a police officer. “He smiles at me, looks out the window, spots a cop car, drops his seat and says, 'Oh man, Uncle, 5-0, we gotta hide.'"

Watch the full video here.

7. Most children sentenced to life without parole are black.

There are at least 2,500 youth sentenced to life without parole in America, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Sixty-percent of them are black Americans. Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that sentencing a child so harshly is cruel and unusual punishment, it doesn’t mean that states are obligated to reverse the harsh sentences, according to ProPublica.

Before black children reach the age of 18, they must contend with at least some of these issues. No child, regardless of race, should be forced to deal with such roadblocks before they step onto the dance floor of their high school prom, but that is what racism in America has in store for babies born to black parents.

Welcome to being a black child in America.

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